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Why I married a British Asian Interethnic relationships are intrinsically political

'Deciding to get married, and whom to marry, is in addition to being a personal choice, a political one' (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images)

'Deciding to get married, and whom to marry, is in addition to being a personal choice, a political one' (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images)


February 16, 2024   8 mins

Marriages are supposed to be made in heaven — not in dilapidated local authority registry offices. My wife and I were getting a civil marriage, as our Islamic wedding the previous year, for all its ceremonial pomp, had been a statutory nullity. Others elope from their families; we’d eloped from the law. It was out of laziness at first, then — maybe — something else. We were on board with a spiritual union in fulfilment of a romantic aspiration, but did this sentiment really need to be ratified by the state? “Marriage is an institution,” Groucho Marx once quipped. “But who wants to live in an institution?”

What the modern sensibility reveres is the marriage of hearts and minds — not of legal entities, or strands in the social fabric. Being admitted to this institution, via its bureaucratic rituals — interrogation by a council official, signing a register, publicly exchanging vows with a wording enshrined, to my surprise, in statute — reminded me of the civic nature of marriage. Deciding to get married, and whom to marry, is in addition to being a personal choice, a political one. It involves much larger questions than simply the conundrum of desire: questions about community, and where we slot into the society around us.

With this sudden realisation, I wondered what it meant that every couple waiting at the registry office was of the same race. All appeared to have “married in”. I should not have been surprised. In multicultural Britain, most marriages are still between members of the same ethnicity. Only 10% of households comprise an “inter-ethnic cohabiting couple”, to use the ONS vernacular. Perhaps, for the white majority, it’s simply the likeliest outcome to fall for someone of the same race (only 4% of white people do otherwise). But ethnic minorities marrying primarily among their own, rather than into the generality, is quite against the odds. Yet that is what transpires. British-Asians — of whom 90% marry in — are the most exclusive, compared with 60% of black Britons. Among all minority groups, though, something greater than the free play of attraction seems to be at work in the choice of a life partner.

I’m a British-Asian; so is my wife. Our marriage wasn’t arranged, and is thus what Indian-English calls, often with a hint of scandal, a “love marriage”. We’re both journalists, and since the society around us is our subject-matter and our audience, we’ve had to be pretty well-integrated into it. We are not entirely secular, since we do practise a religion — not a popular one these days — but in a fashion our peers would approve as “moderate”. Our marriage followed Western norms of individual choice more than South Asian norms of parental orchestration. Nevertheless, we have done as most ethnic minorities do: we married in.

“Our marriage wasn’t arranged, and is thus what Indian-English calls, often with a hint of scandal, a ‘love marriage'”

Why does this matter? “Ethno‐religious intermarriage is regarded as the most complete form of social integration,” the demographer David Voas has said. “Its frequency is therefore of public interest.” If marriage is an institution, it’s apparently a segregated one, which surely offends Left and Right equally. That liberals trumpet diversity while conservatives favour assimilation normally results in disagreement, but on this issue, their values lead to the same conclusion; ethnic in-marriage is a failure of diversity and of assimilation.

For a long time, popular culture has therefore been unanimous in promoting a vision of all ethnicities coming together through intermarriage in society’s great melting pot. That phrase itself we get from a play by the Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill. The Melting Pot — from 1908 — sees a Jewish refugee from Russia, David, falling in love with a Christian woman, Vera. He writes a symphony celebrating the melting away of distinctions between “East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross.” Vera is so moved that she marries David.

Much of what I watched, while growing up, told the same story: classic movies like West Side Story and Pocahontas, Hollywood franchises like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the breakout films of the South Asian diaspora, Mississippi Masala and Bride and Prejudice. All insist that the model minority integrates through marriage. The cultural signals were often more subtle. By the time I got to university, for instance, the message was underscored in the notion of “hybridity” — then all the rage in literary theory — which saw culture itself as the fruit of crossbreeding. Our future was hybrid, we were told, and race, like gender, was a boundary to be transgressed.

So I did my part. My relationships exemplified the liberal ideals of multiculturalism and mobility. There were romances in various corners of Europe. During that high-water mark of Britain’s membership of the EU, so many of my generation pursued ever closer union, quite intimately. And for most Westerners, integration in relationships continues to hint at a grander political project. Hence the outrage over the government’s salary threshold for spousal visas, prompting one commentator to declare: “Western liberalism was built on the principle of marrying out.”

It was during the Enlightenment that the West began to adopt the ideal of marrying out, alongside other beliefs about the individual’s freedom from communal constraints. By the 19th century, as exotic women caught the eyes of imperial adventurers, Western intellectuals were promoting intermarriage as a form of progress, something the more benighted races were incapable of. “Savage nations,” Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “form no intermarriages”.

Anthropologists actually tell us the opposite. What they call exogamy — marriage outside the group — originated in primitive societies where wives were practically slaves. It was therefore treacherous to inflict marriage on one’s own; brides were captured from elsewhere. Once civilisations accorded women a higher status, they tended towards endogamy — marriage within the group. A woman’s right to inherit property, for instance, provided an incentive to keep her wealth within the clan and dignified her with a lucrative hand to be vied for.

Consider the world of Jane Austen. Her quintessentially English novels document the workings of a basically South Asian-style endogamy. The landed gentry scheme to find suitable claimants to their daughter’s dowries while their daughters scheme to find companionship. Literary critics call it the marriage plot. This, in the critic Tony Tanner’s famous definition, is how “society attempts to bring into harmonious alignment patterns of passion and patterns of property”. The marriage plot isn’t fiction: it described the norms of the elite, an in-marrying cadre of Cecils, Churchills, Darwins, Huxleys, Macaulays, Thackerays: the great scions of Britain’s classic liberal age, which was built, in fact, on the principle of marrying in.

Outraged by such rampant endogamy, George Bernard Shaw argued that one of the goals of politics should be “to keep the entire community intermarriageable”. Intermarriage was being posited then as a remedy to class division, much as it would later be promoted to prevent ethnic ghettoisation. But Shaw himself married within the Anglo-Irish intelligentsia, just as Israel Zangwill, even as he was writing The Melting Pot, couldn’t help but marry a fellow Jew. Those who preach inclusive political ideals have often been the most scrupulous in-breeders. For a while my MP was an exemplary socialist whose father and mother were both Labour MPs. He also married a Labour MP, herself the sister of yet another Labour MP.

Intermarriage is an ideal everyone professes but few practise. Of course, not living up to an ideal is no reason to discard it. But many other cultures, including those foundational to the West, do seem to have had a more realistic view of human behaviour. The citizens of Athens, the first democracy, could not marry non-citizens, much as Romans would not marry so-called barbarians. Such laws have, fortunately, been abolished. Today, they would be indefensible. But our habits haven’t changed all that much in the intervening millennia, even if our ideals have.

In my newly married life, I have been wondering what, after a youth of romantic hybridity, changed for me. In The Right to Sex, the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan argues that attraction isn’t what we think it is, something ultimately private and “pre-political”. Instead, our deepest desires are conditioned by politics and — this is her aim — subject to critique. By my mid-twenties, it was only to women of my own ethnicity that I was drawn. This shift, on reflection, appears to me political, or at least politicised.

If my interethnic relationships took place in an era of intercultural optimism — of free movement, free trade, open borders — my yearning to be with a woman of my own “kind” coincided with the counterrevolution against that world. In Eden, before tasting the bitter fruit that exposed their otherness, Adam and Eve loved freely; the explosion of identity politics across the West marked the end of another innocence — our innocence about distinctions of race. From Black Lives Matter to Trump’s “Muslim ban”, the rhetoric of interracial suspicion permeated the entire Anglosphere. As politics became more identitarian, so did my romantic inclination.

In a framing that has caught on since the West’s post-liberal turn, people are supposed to be Somewheres or Anywheres. The Somewhere is rooted in a close-knit community, sceptical about change, about outsiders, while the Anywhere is cosmopolitan, embraces change, celebrates the other. Recent years have seen the Somewheres in revolt. And my marriage, I now realise, was in league with that revolt against the precarity and flux of Anywhere. In an uncertain world, I retreated to the safety of Somewhere, moving with my wife back to East London, where we can without embarrassment dine nightly on curry and rice.

Marriages, intrinsically, involve a vision of being rooted somewhere. The “Anywhere” catchwords — freedom, mobility, change — all run counter to it. That’s why the greatest liberal philosopher, J.S. Mill, equated marriage with slavery: it was an insult to human autonomy. (He still wed.) This contradiction, between an institution based on constraint and a culture that valorises freedom foremost, is keenly felt today. For the first time in history, fewer than half of adults in the UK are married. The impetus of the Enlightenment that first promoted intermarriage as an ideal has since led to all sorts of alternative relationship patterns, in which many have found fulfilment. But for ethnic minorities wishing to stick to matrimony, to marry into familiar territory is to follow the unavoidable logic of the institution itself.

If marriage within ethnic limitations reflects the “Somewhere” ethos, the “Anywhere” ethos can be encapsulated in dating apps, with their unlimited romantic possibilities, wherever you may be in the world. At first this seemed ideal for my generation. But several years down the line, the same people often long for some kind of alternative. Popular culture is becoming more and more fascinated by ethnic minorities who spurn the apps in favour of something a bit more traditional. Many a Netflix-viewing Anywhere has been addictively streaming the hit show Indian Matchmaking (and the spinoff, Jewish Matchmaking). In the recent Rom-com What’s Love Got to Do with It?, a white woman finds herself fascinated by her neighbour’s arranged marriage to a fellow Pakistani. It was written by Jemima Goldsmith, formerly Khan, who knows well the challenges of a mixed marriage.

In my own “Anywhere” days, I was only dimly aware of such challenges. There was an unease I felt that I could not properly account for. I recall once awakening from a dream about my future children, in which I could not speak to them in my mother tongue, the only language of familial intimacy I know. There was also the occasional nuisance of cooking two differently spiced meals over dinner. If no diplomatic solution could be found for a conflict over seasoning, what hope was there for much more vexed religious and cultural disagreements, between, as Zangwill put it, “the Crescent and the Cross”? Only now do I realise that there was always a kind of political unrest brewing within otherwise romantically compatible relationships.

Marriage is political, and choosing whether to marry in or out has been like choosing between citizenships. But there are no citizens of the world in marriage; whenever you choose someone, I feel, you are also committing to Somewhere. For those of us who have been shipwrecked on these shores by the odyssey of migration, the need to feel at home is all the more acute. A marriage must feel like home. After all, what is the home, the nostos, that Odysseus ventures to return to?

It isn’t a state, nor even really a place; it is a marriage. And if I can put it in a word, with my wife, I feel at home.


Tanjil Rashid is a freelance writer.

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Pranav Kumar
Pranav Kumar
5 months ago

Well written!

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
5 months ago

A very thoughtful article. Thank you UH.
It’s a theme which can be played out in several contexts. For instance there is a logic to an “arranged” marriage whatever uber- romantic fiction would make you believe- a tacit compromise right from the beginning instead of heartbreak and disillusion once the rose- tinted ” love” cementing a passionate attraction fades.
Marriage also entails for much of South Asia a buy-in from familial support, making inter- faith and inter- community unions more of a challenge in polarised times. It’s always more difficult for both partners to adjust their families together – ” you can’t choose your relatives”as the adage goes.
Sometimes parents can see with the maturity and hindsight of years that their children are about to make wrong marital choices, thinking it’s ” love” when it’s just animistic sexual desire. This again makes a strong case for “arranged” marriages as movies and novels donot always delve into ” what after” the happy lovers unite!
Jane Austen still is very popular by the way in this part of the world for the reasons the writer brings out.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

Arranged marriages are part of why India is the world’s superpower and everyone wants to move there. Oh wait…

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

India, with. 70 years of freedom, might not be at the same level economically as countries that were never colonised and started off far ahead of India in 1947, which is why people don’t move there.

That being said, arranged marriage and Indian culture is the reason why Indians migrants are top of the pile in terms of income and educational achievement, have zero crime rates….and why there is no “Indian history month”.

N Forster
N Forster
5 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I take it you’ve not been to Singapore…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  N Forster

Singapore is admirable in many ways, but it is a tiny city state, not the world’s largest country by population – with vast ethnic religious, caste and tribal differences.

N Forster
N Forster
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Singapore is one of the most densely populated places in the world with a complex ethnic and religious differences. It is the epitome of diverse, and has no natural resources other than its’ people.
The reasons for one state or another succeeding or failing after the end of colonisation are complex – but blaming a countries’ failings 70 years after the British leave, on the British is foolish and dishonest. This is Samir Ikers’ claim – Its a cheap and predictable shot, an attempt to deflect responsibility.
If being colonised was a vital ingredient in the recipe for future failings, Singapore, would not be Singapore. It would not exist as it does.
India is a remarkable county but its many failings are of its own making. Singapore is a remarkable country, and its many successes are of its own making. British rule can take little credit for either other than once giving both countries a basis of effective bureaucracy and law.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
5 months ago

Opposites attract, but birds of a feather flock together.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago

A bird in th’ hand is worth two in the erm…

Paul T
Paul T
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

A bird (X) in the hand is worth (X + 1)^n
Where n = the number of bushes.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

Very good!
I was struggling to do something similar but you have ‘left me standing’. Bravo!

Paul T
Paul T
5 months ago

I once saw a painfully accurate “Christmas card from a lawyer – with comments” online. It was very good.

Paul T
Paul T
5 months ago

Love…?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago

Culture is important. I married a woman of a different social background but the same ethnicity and everyday is a reminder of our different tastes and outlooks on life.

Lord Chesterfield gave advice to his son regarding marrying for love rather than money. He said if you marry for love you may have many happy moments but many uneasy ones whereas if you marry for money you will have few uneasy moments but few happy one’s.

While I have had a happy marriage the differences have certainly resulted in more conflicts of opinion than a more conventional pairing.

Interestingly one family of Pakistani Muslim origin we know had two of their sons marry non-Pakistani non-Muslim brides. In each case the brides came from catholic families one Irish the other Italian. Perhaps the bonds of religion even if it was a different religion and the close family ties of Irish and Italian families was enough to make the matches feel grounded in a sufficiently common cultural context.

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
5 months ago

The children are hardly mentioned and were probably not thought about when younger.
In a mixed marriage, what language will they speak, what will be their religion, their nationality, their colour?
What schools would they attend?
What if they assimilate and differ from both the parents? Would that be appreciated?

Eamonn Toland
Eamonn Toland
5 months ago

Not sure what Mr Rashid means by “primitive” societies. Certainly in nomadic hunter gatherer societies women have a great deal of autonomy, and occasionally practice serial monogamy.

While Vikings and other groups did seize women in raids, for the most part the “slave” status he refers to is a feature of settled, sedentary farming societies which often come into conflict over resources.

Rather than being seized in raids, women became assets that could be traded to build alliances and reduce tensions. While it lends itself to patriarchy and restrictions on women’s rights, “primitive” tribes with high rates of exogamy have a lower documented rate of warfare. Kin altruism helps to keep the peace.

Marj
Marj
4 months ago
Reply to  Eamonn Toland

Thank you.

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago

A wonderfully written piece.
A slight aftertaste is left, however, by the frank realisation that those of us who have never been attached to the ‘everywhere’ model of life – the blank slate, the citizen of the world unencumbered by the ‘obsolete’ baggage of birth, nation, language, custom and religion – have to endure the social and material effects of a governing class still working out why such things are, in practice, benign.
The foibles of the subject are an inconvenience only to himself but the foibles of the managerial cadres must be endured by the rest of us, to adapt an adage of Gibbon.

William Shaw
William Shaw
5 months ago

“ I should not have been surprised. In multicultural Britain, most marriages are still between members of the same ethnicity.”
On the contrary, if you watch TV every married and cohabiting couple is multiracial. We never see a same race couple in TV ads.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
5 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Not true.

Kent Ausburn
Kent Ausburn
5 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Social engineering.

Andy JS
Andy JS
5 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

This is a very depressing article IMO. People should be looking to expand their horizons, not hunker down in a comfort zone of liked-minded people.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Andy JS

Which however tends to be one of those desiderata that we expect others to do, not ourselves if we are really honest.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago

In multicultural Britain, most marriages are still between members of the same ethnicity.
I hate to break it to the makers of commercials and others who would rearrange society, but that’s the reality pretty much everywhere. The interracial couples that grace ads are not reflective of reality, which is what makes them such an obvious punchline.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I believe the interracial phenom that is so beloved of TV ad companies aims to cover (at least) two racial demographic targets in one 30-second ad. Economy! What puzzles me is the oversized prevalence of red hair among whites in TV-land (at least here in NAmerica). This is not in the least objectionable, but seems inexplicable in terms of advertising power. Do gingers spend that much more than the rest of us?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It must be different in the UK versus the US. In the US ads show couples of the same race the whole time. Asians and Chinese are just not represented

Rob C
Rob C
5 months ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

There are many, many interracial couples in U.S. TV commercials (and ads). Who is most under presented are those squat, dark skinned Native-Americans of Latin America. I’ve never seen even ONE in a commercial.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

There are actually a lot of black – white marriages. With the South Asian community it is a different matter, religion and social norms being a big barrier to most white people joining such partnerships.

Steffan Jones
Steffan Jones
5 months ago

I appreciate the article and the author for their frankness and insights but out of all the depressing things I’ve seen, heard or read in the last few months everywhere I follow, this has been the most depressing.

Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
5 months ago
Reply to  Steffan Jones

Why?

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
5 months ago

Yes, really, why?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
5 months ago
Reply to  Steffan Jones

The alternative to “Asian culture” in the West is marked by relatively high levels of fatherlessness, divorce and single family homes, low education levels, higher drug abuse and crime levels.

What’s not to like?

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
5 months ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

All children have a father. Many choose to absent themselves from the child’s life

. Some women choose a father from a catalogue but most don’t
.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
5 months ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

You know what I mean.
The highly successful Western society that led the world in terms of Science, arts, architecture etc for several centuries, was based (until the last couple of generations) on the same principles as Indian and Chinese cultures – strong family, education, everything etc. nothing unique about it.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
5 months ago

A lovely, thoughtful piece, though I must point out that it isn’t the majority white population that’s been pushing identitarian politics.

peter lucey
peter lucey
5 months ago

“My relationships exemplified the liberal ideals of multiculturalism and mobility. There were romances in various corners of Europe.”

An interesting piece. None of my business, of course, but did the author’s wife have similar multicultural adventures? (Rather dangerous for a Muslima, I understand.)

If she didn’t, we have an textbook example of the sexual double-standard!

Kasandra H
Kasandra H
5 months ago

As the writer said, it’s who you feel at home with. To analyse and think so much based on one author’s personal experience is quite something. Is this even somehing to pontificate about? Hahaha. X

Sean G
Sean G
5 months ago

If “the occasional nuisance of cooking two differently spiced meals” is a deterrent to choosing a certain life partner, hopefully wee offspring are given more leeway if, say, it’s discovered they don’t share their parents’ affinity for hot bonnet peppers. Meh. As the product of multiple interethnic generations, and as someone who married someone of yet another ethnicity and is raising children in a bilingual household—and we’re doing just fine, thank you—I find this quite hard to fathom. But to each his own.

Peter F. Lee
Peter F. Lee
5 months ago

The name ‘unherd Reader’ is applied to those subscribers that have not completed their name in theUnherd Account Profile. ie their name in the profile section is blank.

Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
5 months ago

Surprised to learn that ethnic intermarriage is the ideal of both the Left and the Right, because it’s certainly not the ideal of my kind of Right. My kind of Right prizes identity, tradition and belonging – we’re “somewhere” people and many of us regard ethnic intermarriage with (to put it mildly) suspicion.
So it’s a pleasure to read a piece which goes wholly against the post-modern assumption that we are all doomed (at least here in the West, different ideas prevail elsewhere) to merge into a raceless, cultureless nowhere fusion.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
5 months ago

Perceptive article. But behaviour evolves. A hundred years ago “mixed” marriages were probably about as infrequent as today but the boundaries concerned were different. Standard WASP or Anglican parents would object to their children’s proposed marriages to Catholics, Jews or southern Europeans. Now these give rise to little comment. In another hundred years’ time, I suspect cultural assimilation and the melting pot will have shifted the boundaries yet again. The author might have been uncomfortable marrying someone with a different taste in spices or without a shared second language but his grandchildren may feel less circumscribed. On the other hand, the challenges imposed by economic or class differences will remain, I suspect, much as today.

James Athill
James Athill
5 months ago

m

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
5 months ago

Everywhere I’ve seen significant numbers of interracial couples are large cities. Outside of those it is rare.

But it’s religion, not race that determines the tendency. Few Muslim women marry out. Being accepted into another religion isn’t easy. Some make things easier – Jewish women don’t require their partners to convert as the children will be Jews ( unless they choose not to). I am pretty sure I could never marry an evangelical Protestant; though I’m not particularly religious I’d prefer a fellow catholic, an orthodox or a CofE.

jane baker
jane baker
5 months ago

Yes. It was the great 20th century myth that the relationship between two adults that had legal,financial,child rearing and property owning aspects did not need to be recognized by a silly bit of paper and was purely and solely based on romantic love and was.nobody elses business. Sadly,people have always been prurient and curious and judgmental and the relationship you choose takes it’s place in the SOCIETY in which we live and move and have our being,and that life,or those two lives will only prosper of they have the recognized sanction and protection of everyone else ie society.